Authors: Megan Derr
Tags: #General Fiction
He laughed bitterly. "A few days after we'd arrived, settled in, he took us out into the woods. He wanted us to see some peculiarities of his estate, like the old sacrifice circle where ancient practitioners of black magic had once made human sacrifices in order to call forth more powerful demons."
Bannick felt sick. "Please don't say—"
"I do say, unfortunately," Ezell replied. "He must have been doing it for a long time, to be so brazen and arrogant as to kidnap students. By that point, he was attempting to summon especially powerful demons—sixth level."
"So he needed not simply blood or even one sacrifice, which is bad enough," Bannick said grimly. "He needed multiple sacrifices."
Ezell nodded. "Five to sacrifice, one to be the vessel." He lightly touched his chest where Bannick knew he must have scars—demon summon runes, carved into his chest, to call the demon and contain it, and make Ezell little more than a jar to hold it.
Demon summoning was a tricky subject. It wasn't outlawed, but it wasn't encouraged either, and it was regulated. Usually, if a man wanted to summon a demon, he notified the Offices of Magic Regulation of his intent and reasons. Unless there was strong reason to object, the request was signed off on with very little fuss.
In most cases, demons were summoned for much the same reason that Bannick drank demon blood—to supplement power. If a mage was performing a particularly complicated spell, then having a demon on hand to supplement power could be useful. But there were other uses and reasons.
"What went wrong?" Bannick asked softly.
"Me," Ezell said. "I might not have ever cared about magic much before I left, but I was sure as hell still interested in the Priest I'd left behind. I'd spent that whole past year reading and studying magic whenever I wasn't busy with my academic studies." He looked at Bannick and smiled faintly. "I guess I thought it was all I'd ever have of you. I'd been thinking of going for a grade one license when I got home. But it was all private study; it never bled into my professional studies. No one really knew I was interested.
"He drugged us first, though it didn't take effect until we were well into the woods. He secured the others, then secured and marked me. I—I tried so damned hard to save everyone, but it was all over my head, I could barely remember any of the counter runic. In the end, all I could do was watch as he killed them and the demon possessed me. All I managed to do was keep myself intact and not simply become a hollow vessel."
"It would have taken an experienced mage, like a Priest or a Witch," Bannick said. Witches were the foreign equivalent of Priests, and the reason people like his family were still called witch hunters. "No amateur stood a chance."
"I know that now," Ezell said with a sigh. "But it took me a long time to learn it, and even longer to accept it. That night shaped my nightmares for years; it still crops up every now and then. By the time the whole mess was over, I'd been taken over long enough the demon had killed the professor, who hadn't been careful enough. He also destroyed the sacrifice circle." His voice changed slightly then, briefly.
"We have no love for greedy mages
. After that, we were lost in the forest and exhausted. We found help after three days, but it was two weeks before we got to someone who could exorcise us."
Bannick nodded, smiling faintly at the way Ezell had slipped into using the plural. Seven days was the limit on possession. For the first seven days, a demon could be exorcised from its host without harm to either party. After seven days, they fused, and exorcising most often killed the host. When applying to summon a demon, the number of days the demon would be summoned for was a requirement on the paperwork. If anyone tried to summon a demon for longer than seven days and did not have good cause, a priest was dispatched to investigate the matter more closely.
"So how does the necromancy come into this?" Bannick asked.
"It was a necromancer who found us after three days," Ezell replied. "There was so much snow, even more than what kept us in Hallow. It was so cold. After we had sufficiently recovered, we told him everything that had happened. He took care of us, took us back to the city, helped us while we told our story to authorities, and took us to his home again when it seemed we had nowhere to go. The idea of returning to school left us ill, and we could not face family possessed by a demon just then…"
He fell silent then finished, "His name was Burr. He took us in, and I learned necromancy because it seemed to be the only thing that fit anymore. And—and he wasn't you, but we were close, and I cared deeply for him—"
Bannick smiled. "I'm glad someone was there for you, Ez. No one should face so much shit alone. I'm glad the situation didn't break you, like it's broken others."
Ezell nodded then smiled. "That's my story, Father. Let's hear yours."
"Shucks," Bannick replied, making Ezell laugh just as it had the first time Bannick had said it. They had both just been informed they were stranded and likely would be for some time. Bannick hadn't cared much, not really. Young and proud and eager for attention, he'd been eying the pretty little city slick beside him for several minutes already. Ezell had been more or less ignoring him, but all it had taken was one
, and Ezell had laughed, and Bannick had drawn him in.
Or been drawn, maybe. All of the one, he supposed.
"Arrived too late to save a town," Bannick said. "Kind of like here, we knew the situation was bad, but didn't realize until too late how bad it was. I was along because my mentor, a man named Lansing, knew I was aiming for black collar, and he thought the experience would be good for me. But when we arrived, the entire town was already dead. A level seven demon had been summoned by a mage who should not have tried. Isn't that always how it goes? Anyway, we did our damndest to capture it and kill it, but it was a demon with no love for humans. Having killed hundreds of people, he was overflowing with power. Lansing called in a blood priest right after we arrived, and the two of them managed to partially trap the demon, but it had wounded them both badly, and they died of their wounds before they could finish.
"I didn't have enough power to finish the wards that they'd started; I was still just a blue collar then," Bannick said quietly. "I took the blood priest's flask and hoped like hell it wouldn't kill me or worse. It took, and I managed to finish the wards and send the demon straight back to hell. I woke up later in Crown City, and after recuperating for a week, I started training specifically for red collar."
Ezell nodded, face full of sympathy but not pity. "Blood priests never have it easy, do they? It suits you, though, for whatever that's worth. You're damned good with those guns, too."
Bannick laughed. "Hell, city slick. Ain't a man alive in the west who can't shoot straight. Them that shoot crooked don't live to talk about it. Shooting's the easy part."
Ezell laughed with him, eyes warm and fond as he looked at Bannick. "Now how am I supposed to walk away from you a second time, Ban?"
"I don't right know," Bannick replied. "It was hard enough the first time." He reached out and stroked Ezell's cheek, pleased when Ezell stood and moved to sit right next to him, no manner of personal space between them at all.
He really hated they were hip-deep in work, and would be for hours, with no sign of being able to spend any private time together soon. By the time that chance came up, they'd likely be ordered in separate directions, and he really did not know what he would do then. While Ezell was a memory, he had learned to live with the fact he would only ever be a memory, and move on. Now that Ezell was here and real—Bannick could not reduce him to memory a second time.
"So what do you do when you're not helping the Crown?" Bannick asked.
"Helping the Crown
what I do," Ezell said wryly. "All I’m really missing is a collar." He reached up and lightly tugged at Bannick's. "I think the clergy would suffer an apoplexy if they ever felt compelled to give collars to necromancy."
"I think they'd just be stuck on picking out a color," Bannick said with a snort. "They're plum out of them. Otherwise—" He broke off as the demon gave an agonized scream, sending chills down his spine, making him jump reflexively to his feet and draw his guns before he had even thought about it.
A firm hand fell lightly on his chest, Ezell just barely brushing up against him, tacitly urging him to relax. Bannick forced himself to do so, smoothly holstering his guns and flexing his hands. "I guess he's almost finished now, if that don't mean it's getting free."
Ezell replied, hand slowly falling away from Bannick's chest, eyes heavy with yellow.
"The death throes do not make for pleasant listening. He is literally being torn apart rune by rune, piece by piece. But deep inside, whatever sanity might remain in his heart is glad to be dying. Humans like to say there is no fate worse than death…"
The yellow eyes flared bright.
"Any dire, if it could muster sanity, would tell you that's not true."
"I know," Bannick said quietly. "There's lots worse than death." He looked at the stable again as another horrible scream rent the air. "I hope it's over soon."
" Ezell replied and strode closer to the stable, studying his marks, seeming not really to hear the screams himself, though surely the screams must be especially awful to another demon.
"How old are you?" Bannick asked, suddenly curious.
Ezell turned to look at him, laughing.
"Old enough I know that humans and demons are not so different when all is said and done. But I am still young enough that the Angels call me Childe."
Bannick laughed—Childe was a term for a young demon, the equivalent of a teenager.
They both turned as the dire demon gave a scream more terrible than all the others combined. It cut off abruptly, and only then did Bannick realize how much weight had been in the air now that it was lifted.
He jumped back as the stable suddenly burst into flame, throwing up an arm to ward off the sparks and embers that came toward them on the wind. Pulling out his book, he flipped it open to the proper page, then held up his hand, palm out, fingers spread. He recited a prayer to cage the fire, keep it contained, so that it would not catch the house and surrounding brush on fire.
By the time it was done burning, and they had put out the lingering embers, dusk had fallen. "It's definitely gone," Ezell said after a brief but thorough inspection. "Nothing is left. Purify it and then we had best go double check that cave."
Nodding, Bannick turned to a different section in his book, then deliberated between two prayers—the most commonly used
Prayer of Purification
and a slightly stronger variation. Finally, he settled on the stronger, deciding the extra energy he would use was worth it. Decision made, he turned his hand so that it was held out as though in supplication. Then he began to speak, voice taking on a sing-song quality as he cleared away the negative residue left by the dire demon and the heavy black magic used in its destruction.
When he finished, they put out the fire, returned the supplies to the house, then saddled up and rode up to the cave. It took them another hour to find it, purify it, and get back to town in the dark. Once they reached town, they spent another three hours purifying the Sheriff's office, settling the townspeople, telegramming the Temple, and wolfing down dinner before finally collapsing in their beds.
Bannick sighed as they climbed down from the train, relieved and not to be back home in Crown City.
Relieved, because Crown City really was home now. There was nothing like its hustle and bustle, the thousands of different lives taking place, the way they were all too busy to care about what anyone else was up to. Anything and everything was to be found in Crown City, and she was a beauty to look upon.
The Pantheon was at the heart of the city, the cluster of buildings that housed the ruling figures, as well as the headquarters for all the main branches of government, including the Temple of the Priests, though officially it was the Temple of the Order of the Goddess. Stretching out from the Pantheon were the various districts of the city—business, residential, rich, poor, parks, factory, shopping, medical, and countless more. There were flowers and trees everywhere; it was impossible to tell that barley seventy five years ago, it had all been a scorched, blood-soaked battlefield.
But as much as he loved being home, he hated it at the moment, because being home meant that his time with Ezell could be counted in hours. He fervently hoped they could find a way to keep in touch, if not stay together. Surely that was possible now. He supposed they'd figure it out tomorrow, after they'd reported to Father Gabriel. Really, he preferred not to think about it and drive himself crazy.
"So where is home for you?" Ezell asked. "I cannot believe that you and I have both lived in Crown this entire time and never crossed paths."
Bannick snorted. "That's probably because neither of us is ever here long enough for paths to cross. I live in the Cherub district. I board at a house on Rue Willow; my landlady is a dragon. I'd love to move out, but that requires being home for more than a day at a time."
Ezell laughed. "My parents moved to the country about six years ago. They gave me the townhouse, figuring I had more use for it than my brother or sister. I've got a nice couple that take care of it for me, Rosy and her husband Jimmy. Would you like to come stay the night with me?"